As governments tap user data, Google transparency lags

Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 11:08 am

    As governments tap user data, Google transparency lags

    Amidst a surge in governmental requests for private user data, Google’s openness effort is lagging, as the release of Google’s second transparency report shows. The report, released Tuesday, is a welcome sign of the search engine’s commitment to openness, but it is not a big improvement over the initial report last April.

    The new report documents government requests for user data and removal of content from Google sites, as well as governmental disruptions of Internet traffic to Google services.

    U.S. government requests for Google user data increased 19 percent since 2009, according to the report. Google says its received 4,350 requests for user data from local, state and national government entities in the first six months of 2010, compared to 3,850 in the last six months of 2009.

    “As we improve our tracking,” Google said last April, “we may add more categories.”

    Six months later, it is clear that Mountain View has not improved its tracking much.

    In the new report, Google provides no additional information about how to understand the growing state interest in private user data.

    Did these requests (which Google says mostly concern criminal matters) come primarily in the form of administrative subpoenas, a common tool of law enforcement agencies? Or in more powerful court orders, which enable to governments to obtain detailed personal information? No one knows. Nor does Google document how often it cooperated with these requests, nor whether it received other types of requests.

    Google does not break down the data requests by level of government. Is the surge in requests coming from local police departments targeting common criminals? Or from federal agencies like the FBI and DEA prosecuting larger illicit enterprises? Again, no one knows.

    And there is no breakdown of how many requests concerned national security matters as opposed to criminal matters.

    It’s not like Google is incapable of collecting more detailed data. When it comes to data removal the search engine has improved its transparency measures.

    Google says that it received 128 requests to remove 678 data items from its search results or sites in the first six months of 2010, a slight increase over the 125 received in the last six months of 2009. It now reports how many removal requests came via court order (80 of 128) and how often it cooperated fully or partially with government: about 82 percent of the time.

    YouTube was the most common target of removal efforts with 31 court orders and 45 non-court orders that resulted in the removal of 169 items.

    The Transparency Report is strongest, perhaps unsurprisingly, in documenting governmental interference with Google services. The biggest innovation is the addition of a monitoring tool which enables users to identify traffic disruptions of Google services around the world.

    So you can easily find out that Iran has blocked all YouTube traffic since the disputed presidential election of June 2009. China has blocked YouTube since March 2009. And when Pakistan worried about the fictional “Everyone Draw Mohammed Contest” earlier this year, the government blocked YouTube for ten days.

    The tool sheds new light on the behavior of authoritarian governments, which is welcome, but not on Google itself.  It says nothing about the most sensitive issue for Google users: how the company responds to state officials seeking private data. If traffic monitoring is not a distraction from Google’s transparency effort, it is not a fundamental improvement either.

    Mountain View can, and should, do better.

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